Tuesday, 29 March 2016


[from 03/02/16]

When the National Theatre announced their new season in February, I joked that this was the day that I’d officially become mainstream.

Obviously that joke is multi-faceted. Part of the joke is that by most available measures, I’m already a living definition of what “the mainstream” is: white, male, middle-aged, middle-class, and university-educated. And the other part of the joke is that my tastes have repeatedly been characterised as niche, rarefied, otiose. The idea of me being not-mainstream is ludicrous. The idea of me being mainstream is ludicrous, too. [Which should put me in an excellent position from which to look at “the mainstream”, but it doesn’t.]

So, what do we mean when we talk about “the mainstream” in British theatre?

The short answer to this, I suspect, is that the answer will vary from person to person, from taste to taste, from age-bracket to age-bracket, maybe race to race, gender to gender, etc.; or all of these things. What’s perhaps strange is that it’s not a thing that many particularly aspire to be, or profess to “being really into”. No one staggers out from seeing their new favourite piece of theatre praising its centrism. At the same time, there is still a problem of exclusion.

I do wonder if “mainstream” is a peculiarly Anglophone expression? And when did it become common currency? How did calling things “mainstream” become mainstream?

I guess like anyone (anyone white, male, middle-class who was emphatically not-mainstream) my age, I probably picked up “mainstream” as a term of abuse somewhere in the pages of NME or Melody Maker where the ironising of unreconstructed indie-snobbery wasn’t anywhere near a powerful enough disincentive from practising it. *Of course* we also took the piss out of anyone who actually *said* “I was into Nirvana when they were still signed to Sub Pop,” but that’s because we *really* were, right?

Back then, music snobbery at least had available measures. In basic terms: “obscure” music really was obscure. You couldn’t just open Amazon on your phone and order pretty much anything ever recorded, much less find whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, on YouTube. But then, as you get older, you realise it also had other inbuilt, paradoxical elements: getting in at the beginning of something (a band’s career, a musical movement, whatever) was clearly important, but so was not being old. In short, the perfect music fan, circa 1990, had seen The Clash live when they were roughly four-years-old.

Of course, music fandom was just a pantomime of pledged allegiances and invented antipathies masquerading as deeply reasoned political rationales for liking what you already happened to like, so it’s nothing at all like theatre, right?

One way that considering music instead of theatre is useful is the way it illustrates something about the lack of (necessarily) inherent qualities ascribed to form, content and intent. When I was growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, The Smiths and Joy Division (say) were both still relatively obscure. Wilfully so, in the eyes of non-goth/indie types, who were sometimes even moved to violence by how much they didn’t like that kind of thing. Fast forward twenty-five years, and The Smiths have a song in Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s Desert Island Discs (what could be more mainstream or “establishment”?). That its inclusion is widely assumed to have been a cynical measure of good faith/everymanism is possibly more remarkable. But now they’re the soundtrack of adverts. They’re *obvious* choices for an arthouse jukebox revuesical. Nothing about them says “weird” or “obscure” any more. The media explosion surrounding the death of David Bowie could maybe stand as the pinnacle of this phenomenon. The death of the most successful, popular, mainstream “outsider” imaginable.

In the same way, we might think of all the things in theatre that were once deemed non-mainstream – Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh, puppets, live-feed cameras, Live Art Lite – that are now a part of the National Theatre’s core programme. Things that it now seems impossible to imagine once being championed as “alternative”, “subversive”, or “challenging”.

But none of this really answers the question of what makes something “mainstream”.

In music it seemed to be a simple matter of popularity, of sales, of visibility. Subversion was pretty much always trumped by success – i.e. it scarcely mattered what a record *said* if it sold/made millions. The money would drown any message. (Even while it would be snobbily suggested that “normal people” didn’t even “get it”.)

Or: if everyone just likes it, then it’s irretrievably flawed, because *everybody* is clearly a bunch of bastards. Looked at more charitably: people who want their art to be “subversive” are put in a difficult position when it turns out that lots of people find their work likeable and entertaining. Particularly if those people who like the work continue to buy the Daily Mail and vote Conservative. The Art that the artist wants to change people’s minds hasn’t.

I think this paradox comes from some seriously stupid thinking conducted right in the heart of capitalism itself.

In the 1950s, Rock‘n’roll was sold to an unwitting generation of teenagers with the message that it was subversive, that it was rebellious, that it was a great way to show their individuality. Rock‘n’roll was their way of “sticking it to The Man”. Of course, in reality it was neoliberal ideology on a fucking stick. It’s hard to think of a better distillation of capitalism’s principle drivers.

Everything in the history of popular music since has been complicated by this paradox. Selling resistance ultimately benefits a system founded on selling. Asserting your individuality was always the whole point. Literally no one is trying to stop you “assert your individuality” (apart from some commies, apparently).

As such, trying to understand subversion through the model of punk music is a doomed enterprise. In many ways it would be incredibly easy to argue that punk was the musical precursor of Thatcherism. A movement with no respect for the social achievements of the post-war Labour government, with no regard for history, a nihilism that ultimately only said “me, now, alone”.

Applying thinking about “mainstream” to theatre is difficult. It seems difficult in the first instance because theatre itself isn’t fully mainstream. I mean, theatre is really weird. It’s hitherto been the least reproducible artform (maybe now technology has caught up, the recorded live transmission may in time become a saleable cultural commodity in its own right, but even then there’s a question of whether it will ever eclipse the live incarnation, at a time when all recorded media sales are tanking thanks to the internet). Sure, seeing a photo of a painting isn’t the same as seeing the painting, but it counts for something. And a CD of an opera is a bloody long way from the full story, but it’s allowed to stand, in a way that I’d suggest the reading of playscripts generally isn’t (let’s leave the fact that playscripts certainly aren’t all of theatre for the moment).

So, part of why the idea of “mainstream” is so difficult to apply to theatre is that the numbers are either so small, or accrued over such a long period of time. Another aspect, at least in England, is to do with class. It is widely perceived to be the case that the National Theatre, and probably a large part of (at least) London’s subsidised theatre sector, is predominantly very white and very middle class. It may also be perceived to be largely male, largely heterosexual, and possibly even largely protestant-atheist. In this, it largely reproduces the post-Thatcher, dominant “political class”. And the press. And the finance industry. And the legal profession, accountancy, broadcast media, etc. As such, it is theoretically “mainstream” but also “elite”. Not so much an expression of the centre, or of the majority, but as a top-down instruction to the next tier down of how and what they should like and think.

Obviously, this is both true and untrue.

The National Theatre (of where? GB? UK? Just England? England and Northern Ireland? England and Wales, even though Wales has its own?) is in a difficult position. Unlike *basically every other “National Theatre” in Europe* it was founded in 1963. By contrast, the Comédie-Française was founded in 1680, and has been in its current premises since 1799. In Germany, the concept of National Theatres pre-dated the actuality of Germany as a nation state, and was closely allied to that drive toward unification (the 1850s unification, not the 1990 one). Indeed, it was the struggle for nationhood *at all*, in an era when much of Europe was carved up and ruled over by the Habsburgs or the Russians, or the Germans (or the Ottomans), that prompted the foundation of national theatres across Europe between the 1860s and the 1890s. It is also not unusual for a city’s oldest theatre to be called The National Theatre of [City]. There are Deutsches Theaters, or Deutsches Schauspielhauses all over Germany, for example. Poland also has several national theatres. Etc.

Where the national theatres of Europe could be said to have had an explicit purpose, rooted in nationalism and a determination to define a national culture, the one in London turned up at the beginning of the age of postmodernism and multiculturalism, in a country/set of countries that had been the same shape forever, last invaded almost a thousand years earlier.

Nevertheless, it seems that the model that the NT has always followed, is an (necessarily flawed) attempt to represent the whole of the nation. With theatre. (Which, for the theatre/class reasons noted above, is already a paradox).

It therefore finds itself in an uneviable position. We might formulate it like this:
The National Theatre cannot be radical, because it is the National Theatre.
It can stage work that would have been radical anywhere else, but, by virtue of it being on at the National Theatre, it is effectively (seen to have been?) made a part of official ideology. The effects of whatever radicalism there had been, whatever subversion, are absorbed by the comforting, familiar layers of concrete.

I find this idea fascinating.

(Of course, there’s equally a sense that you could import something that would seem positively tame/mainstream in, say, LADA, into the NT, and it would accrue a sense of “shock” within the NT. A shock cancelled out again, maybe, by the theoretical absorption into this idea of “official art”, but an initial shock nonetheless.)

At the same time, there is the sense that the National Theatre needs to represent everyone in Britain, across race, across cultures, across class, across political beliefs(?), and across gender, across dis/ability, etc. And all this at a point in time when there is no consensus/agreement on how anyone wants to be “represented”. Only that there are, at present, too many white men and not enough anyone else.

[It comes to something when David Hare says theatre is too middle-aged and too middle-of-the-road, and I’m sitting in the NT watching Cleansed going “Yup! This is what it’s all about.” (Even if, on paper/in theory, Sir David is only moderately more privileged than myself and I should at least flag-up my awareness this argument has all the cultural urgency of so many middle-class white boys scrapping over which is the best conker.) (see also: Matt Trueman’s piece for WOS.)]

So there’s now a sense in theatre where the mainstream is at once being rejected and demanded.

Obviously my main point of reference for this idea at the moment is Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. On one hand, I think it’s a beautiful, rigorous, thoughtful piece of work, that is unimpeachable in its feminism (although, yes, I really did wonder about the all-white cast). On the other hand, it was also precisely the work I thought the NT should be doing (albeit with better diversity).

I suppose, for me, Cleansed represents the apex of my impasse. I found it completely stunning; beautifully made, beautifully realised; beautiful full stop. Intelligent, difficult, uncompromising. At the same time, it felt completely reasonable that it was at the NT. That the only horses it seemed to frighten were a couple of right-wing hacks, and it reassuringly didn’t do much for Michael Billington. At the same time, it felt perfectly “contained”. While it was artistically energising and overwhelming, it didn’t actually break anything. And that also seemed fine to me. It was beautifully realised art. And I didn’t need it to break anything. It made me think, yes. And it completely changed the way I felt, mentally, emotionally, and physically, while I was watching it. And it stayed with me until, well, it hasn’t really gone away yet. I don’t think it changed my mind about anything, but then (in common with most people, perhaps,) I already think I’m right, and don’t think I really want to be changed (because I’m already right).

Part of that anxiety, perhaps comes from the fact that I think in Britain we’re very bad at talking about what Art is For. Or rather, we’re very bad indeed at accepting the idea it isn’t “for” anything, in that sense. It’s not necessarily meant to have an observable function. But then, perhaps this too is a generational conflict, rather than a national ideology. “Art For Art’s Sake” is on one hand held up as irretrievably decadent and liable to uphold dominant ideological positions by not challenging them. But on the other hand, is the best antidote to “functional” art, measured by targets, metrics, tables of social inclusion, communities “healed”, persons redeemed, souls ennobled, and revenues generated, or whatever the government of the day is hoping to get in return for its funding. While it’s felt a bit to me like my generation have pushed away from functional realism toward metaphor and art, in much of Eastern Europe, it’s the older generation who are their Rupert Goolds and Katie Mitchells, and the young generation who are the David Hares and Max Stafford-Clarkes.

In Norway, Forced Entertainment became the first group to be awarded the Ibsen Prize. In Britain they have yet to be shown at the National Theatre. In Europe, they are a mainstay of the biggest, most prestigious international festivals. The idea of “mainstream” is not fixed. I’m sure plenty of people (even in UK) would argue that Forced Entertainment are mainstream. Equally, others will surely still describe them as wilfully difficult, perverse to the point of self-defeating, and “definitely not even theatre” let alone in the mainstream of it.

As such, perhaps all we can conclude is that meaning and terminology is relative. Anyone so minded will probably be able to establish a case for why so-and-so are, or are not, a mainstream artist, or a marginalised artist. The facts and figures suggest that the mainstream is decided upon (disproportionately) by a white, male middle-class. And common sense adds that if that’s also you, then you probably don’t even notice it, even if you try. And since it’s me, I’m in the worst possible position to have a personal feeling on the matter.

What’s interesting, running this argument about “Art” alongside the argument about “mainstream representation” is how far apart they feel. This, perhaps, is a big problem for theatre today. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this new-found fondness for what feels like it is now the centre ground is just me becoming the dead white man I am destined to be. Perhaps the marginal, radical black, Queer, whatever work is still out there, still unlikely to be invited to the NT, and maybe I’ve just reached a stage where, because the narrow field of my interests is slightly represented (no, of course it’s not, it’s hardly like they’ve got Frank Castorf or a re-staging of an Einar Schleef going up in the Olivier, or a bunch of Heiner Müller in the Lyttleton), I’m just happy to sit back, and ignore the stuff made outside my comfort zone. Equally, of course, there’s the very real sense, that I’m plausibly not the right [white, middle-class man] to either appreciate it or write about it.

At this point, this post runs out of stream and ideas. We know the arguments about “gatekeepers” and we know the arguments about neutralisation. If [insert whatever journalist or artistic director] is too white and middle-class to recognise the value of something, then on one hand it’s plausibly succeeded in doing and saying something new and radical, but on the other its influence is massively limited.

And I don’t know how to square that circle.

[cover image: Office interior, 1998 by Richard Forster, who is my new favourite hauntological artist. He basically does near-perfect reproductions of old photos or photocopies or pictures in minute graphite pencil detail.  Such good copies that they're almost pointless.  And of very mundane photographs.  Incredibly appealling on so many levels.]

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